Unmanned Dream Chaser Test Flight Successful, Despite Crash Landing
October 30, 2013

Unmanned Dream Chaser Test Flight Successful, Despite Crash Landing

[ Watch the Video: Dream Chaser Unmanned Flight Suffers Crash Landing ]

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

After a series of successful ground and captive-carry tests with its flagship Dream Chaser commercial space taxi, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s (SNC) latest experiment, falls short of perfection.

On Saturday, October 26, SNC’s Dream Chaser was airlifted by helicopter to launch altitude for what was a largely successful automated test flight. However, as the aircraft came in for a landing at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Engineers blamed a crash landing on a faulty deployment of the craft’s left landing gear, the same type of gear the Air Force’s F-5E Tiger fighter jets use.

At 11:10 a.m. Pacific time over the Mojave Desert, Dream Chaser was released from the Sikorsky S-64 helicopter, operated by Erickson Air Crane, for an autonomous test flight, with the spacecraft reaching its intended glide slope, SNC said in a statement.

“The vehicle adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile. Less than a minute later, Dream Chaser smoothly flared and touched down on Edwards Air Force Base's Runway 22L right on centerline,” it said.

"While there was an anomaly with the left landing gear deployment, the high-quality flight and telemetry data throughout all phases of the approach-and-landing test will allow SNC teams to continue to refine their spacecraft design," the Sierra Nevada statement said.

SNC Corporate Vice President for Space Systems, Mark Sirangelo, told Stephen Clark at SpaceFlightNow that the flight was "largely a successful test that had a nonflight issue on landing."

In a conference call with Reuters, Sirangelo said Saturday’s test was a significant step toward proving that Dream Chaser can fly. As earlier tests were conducted with scaled-down versions of the Dream Chaser, this full-size Dream Chaser model was carried to 12,500 feet and was released for a minute-long glide back to the runway.

He said that while engineers had believed the craft was “air-worthy,” as computer models and simulations had suggested, it wouldn’t be confirmed until an actual test was conducted. And, he added, “there had not been a lifting body of this type flown since the 1970s," referring to NASA’s testing of the space shuttle Enterprise.

But once Dream Chaser was released, the team knew they had a winning formula, despite a non-flight landing issue.

[Watch the video: SNC Dream Chaser Undergoes Captive-Carry Test]

Engineers are currently assessing the crash landing, determining how much damage the space taxi sustained. However, Sirangelo noted that the crew cabin and onboard computers were not damaged in Saturday morning’s hiccup.

Furthermore, he said the landing gear used on this test is not the same gear SNC plans to incorporate when orbital missions finally begin.

In a statement made earlier this year, SNC said that landing tests would begin with a drop from 12,000 feet and last between 30 and 40 seconds. The Dream Chaser would fly back toward Earth at a glide angle of approximately 23 degrees, ending with a flare maneuver about 300 feet from the ground, and touchdown on the runway at speeds in excess of 200 mph.

Once SNC’s Dream Chaser proves its reliability as a space taxi, NASA will likely use it to launch as many as seven astronauts at a time to the International Space Station (ISS). Dream Chaser will launch on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, and after successfully delivering astronauts safely to the space station, it will then return home, touching down on the runway like NASA’s space shuttles did.

While this craft is capable of delivering up to seven passengers to space, it is noticeably smaller than any Space Shuttle design with a wingspan of 22.9 feet and total length of 29.5 feet. NASA’s shuttles measured about 184 feet long, or six times the size of Dream Chaser.

NASA said in a statement that nobody was injured during Saturday’s landing mishap. As a precaution, Air Force emergency personnel responded to the scene.

NASA and SNC have a Space Act Agreement and as much as $227.5 million has been promised to the company by NASA to fund SNC's spaceflight program. Payments are made to SNC as the firm completes design and development milestones.

One of the milestones that would incur payment was the completion of an approach and landing test. SNC was set to receive $15 million at the completion of the milestone. However, with Saturday’s landing failure, it is likely SNC will see no money this time.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is not the only firm that has a contract to bring Americans back to space from American soil. The space agency is also supporting Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Boeing, which are both working on capsules that return to Earth via parachutes after successful deployments to space.

SNC had been working to be the first to make NASA’s dreams come true, and Saturday’s mishap may only speed along that process, with the first piloted test flight scheduled for next year. Originally, SNC had planned to make two unmanned test flights.

"We were fortunate enough to get almost all the data we needed on the very first flight. If that's the case, we may just move on to the next phase of the program," Sirangelo told Reuters’ Irene Klotz.